I love to cook. But, there are occasions when my husband and I appreciate the chance to relax and enjoy a meal prepared by someone else, and spend a bit of time together. A recent meal out which left us with food poisoning, made me wonder what standards restaurant owners must follow to keep the food safe.
In Saskatchewan, public health is the responsibility of the province, as defined in the Public Health Act, 1994. Public health inspectors will involve the Canadian Food Inspection Agency if there is a suspicion that the food, not the preparation, is the cause of a food borne illness or if there is fraud in the manufacturing, packaging, and presentation of the food. Restaurant patrons may not be able to consume some foods for medical, personal or religious reasons, so the restaurant must provide accurate information about the food if the customer requests it. Failure to do so is in violation of Section 5 of the federal Food and Drugs Act.
Public health inspectors are responsible for ensuring that restaurant operators adhere to the Provincial Public Eating Establishment Regulations and Standards. While these documents aren’t law, they are considered law if attached to the operating license of a public eating establishment.
In Saskatchewan, public health inspectors ensure that restaurants and eating establishments comply with building standards and regulations. There must be sufficient light in the food prep area, the kitchen equipment must be made of materials that can be kept clean and there must be sufficient hand washing stations for the staff. At least one person on duty must have completed a food sanitation course. Food handlers must wear clean clothes, have their hair tied back and wash their hands often. Dishwashing equipment, fridges and freezers must meet industry standards and be operating at proper temperatures. The restaurant must be free of vermin like mice, rats, and flies and if found in violation, extermination of pests can be ordered.
There are also specific regulations regarding food preparation, cooking and reheating. The regulations state that the “food must be clean, wholesome, free from spoilage and prepared in a manner so that it is safe to eat.” Food must reach specific internal temperatures for defined periods of time and must be thrown out if reheated twice. The only animals allowed in the dining area of the restaurant are service animals. Decorative tanks of fish and tanks containing live lobsters for consumption are acceptable.
The public health inspector has the right to inspect the restaurant at any time, to take samples of food and swabs of utensils to test for pathogens, and can take photographs and videotape of the facility and its employees.
In January of 2001, the City of Toronto implemented an aggressive food premises inspection plan. Using a “Green-Yellow-Red” pass system, restaurant owners post a PASS inspection notice informing their customers that they are in compliance with public health regulations. A yellow CONDITIONAL PASS notice will be posted if there are significant infractions of guidelines, giving the owner 48 hours to correct the infractions. The restaurant will be closed and a red CLOSED notice will be posted if the inspector notices violations that could endanger the public. Under the new system, the restaurant would stay closed until the owner corrects the situation. The inspection notice must be posted where all customers can see it, and if the notice is not posted, owners are fined up to $5,000. The City of Toronto has approximately 18,000 food premises, of which over 10,000 are restaurants and is committed to maintaining its legal responsibility of inspecting these premises up to three times a year.
Public health inspectors protect the public. They are educated at accredited post-secondary institutions and are nationally certified by the Canadian Institute of Public Health Inspectors (CIPHI). The Regina Leader Post recently reported that Saskatchewan might be facing a shortage of public health inspectors. A recent ruling by their employer, the Saskatchewan Association of Health Organizations (SAHO), determined that public health inspectors were not entitled to a market supplement pay increase, normally used to give workers higher than normal pay raises in sectors where there are problems recruiting and retaining workers. As a result, the Saskatchewan branch of the CIPHI has said that public health inspectors may leave the province in search of higher wages and a lighter workload. Saskatchewan inspectors are the lowest paid of the prairie provinces; earning $22.00 per hour, compared to $30 per hour in Alberta and $28 per hour in Manitoba. The public would soon feel the impact, as restaurants, hotels, swimming pools and water supplies would not be inspected as often.
Public Health Inspectors in Saskatchewan may soon be on strike, as contract talks have broken down between the SAHO and the union, the Health Sciences Association of Saskatchewan (HSAS). One of the issues on the table is recruitment and retention of the union’s members, including public health inspectors. The union sees wage increases as a way to retain current workers and to attract others from out of the province. With two million cases of food borne illness per year, it seems to me that recruiting and retaining public health inspectors in the province should be a high priority. The safety of our food depends on it.
Teresa Neuman is a member of the Board of Directors of Briarpatch Magazine. She lives in Regina with her family and is a member is CUPE.